JAMIE WALKER believes his former Tynecastle teammate Liam Smith was one of the unspoken victims of the dismal Ian Cathro era at Hearts
However, he has lavished praise on his close pal for showing the fortitude to prove himself all over again in the part-time ranks before earning a switch to Dundee United.
The duo will be in direct opposition in Gorgie on Friday night when United face Hearts in the Betfred Cup curtain-raiser.
Smith, 23, was a highly-regarded defender – captain of the Scotland under-21 side – after emerging through the ranks at Hearts but Walker reckons his confidence took a hit after being fielded out of position during a 3-2 defeat against Dundee in December 2016.
He toiled at left-back, selling two goals, and although he made 12 further appearances that term, he was farmed out on loan to St Mirren for the following season before joining Ayr United in the summer of 2018.
One campaign at Somerset Park was enough to convince United boss Robbie Neilson to return Smith to full-time football.
“I’m actually really good friends with Smithy and we speak quite a bit away from football,” explained Walker. “It’ll be good to go up against him, Robbie [Neilson] and Osman [Sow]. I first got to know him when he came into the first-team squad at Hearts.
“He was a really good player. He maybe suffered when [Ian] Cathro played him left-back, he had a few bad games and never really recovered. But I’m delighted for where he is now.
“We have a bit of banter about that game when he gave away two goals at Dundee! But he was playing left-back and he really didn’t like it there.
“He went to Ayr and did really well and got a good move to Dundee United.
“You can look at it both ways. He maybe had options to go to Premiership teams but not have played – but he went to Ayr and played quite a lot then got a good move.
“He believed in himself that he could take the opportunity. That says a lot about his mentality.”
As well as relishing his reunion with Smith, Walker is looking forward to the opportunity to cross swords with Neilson on his maiden return to Tynecastle since leaving Hearts for MK Dons.
And he will always be appreciative of the tough love employed by the harsh taskmaster.
“When everyone first saw the number of training sessions under Robbie it was a bit long!” He recalled with a smile. “But everyone bought into what he wanted to do and respected that.
“The season in the Championship and first season back in the Premiership he got the rewards.
“We got off to a good start, a good pre-season, trained a lot and worked really hard. We carried it on, won a trophy and thoroughly enjoyed it.
“He did very well for my career, in terms of my overall game and teaching me things, on and off the park
“For the club, he took us from the Championship and built us back to the top.
“I’ll speak to him on Friday and and see what he’s saying – then hopefully we can get one over him.”
Walker is expected to make his first appearance since returning to the club from Wigan Athletic when United visit.
He was withdrawn from last Saturday’s friendly against Glenavon prior to kick-off due to a thigh complaint, while he missed the final six months of last term due to knee surgery. He has not played since December.
However, Levein has outlined a plan to ease him into first-team action, while implementing a tailored training programme to get him up to speed.
“I think the gaffer is being clever” added Walker. “I spoke to him at the start of the week and I think he’s going to build me up over the Betfred Cup games and hopefully I’ll be really ready for the start of the league.
“I took two days off this week and trained on Wednesday. I’m feeling fine. I don’t want to go in and play with niggles so I’m just trying to get it right and start the season well.”